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Sumner, Charles 1811-

Statesman; born in Boston, Mass., Jan. 6, 1811; graduated at Harvard College in 1830. Appointed a reporter of the United States Circuit Court, he published Sumner's reports (3 volumes), containing the decisions of Judge Story. He also edited the American jurist, a quarterly law magazine of high reputation. For three winters, while Judge Story was absent at Washington, Mr. Sumner was lecturer to the Law School at Harvard, and his familiar theme was constitutional law and the law of nations. In 1837 he visited Europe, travelled extensively on the Continent, and resided nearly a year in England. Bearing a complimentary letter to the latter country from Judge Story, he was cordially received, and was introduced by statesmen on the floor of the House of Parliament. In 1840 he [459] returned to Boston, and in 1841-46 he published an edition with annotations of Vesey's reports (20 volumes).

His first participation in active politics was in 1845. On July 4 he delivered an oration before the municipal authorities of Boston on the True grandeur of Nations. At that time war with Mexico was impending. He denounced the war system as a means for determining international questions, and declared that it ought to be superseded by peaceful arbitration. This oration attracted much attention, led to much controversy, and was widely circulated in America and Europe. This was followed by many public addresses on kindred themes, and his reputation as an orator, suddenly created, made them widely and thoughtfully read. He then first appeared as a public opponent of slavery, and opposed the annexation of Texas because he believed it was intended to extend the boundaries of that labor system in our country. From that day until his death Sumner was an earnest advocate of the emancipation of the slaves. In 1846 he addressed the Whig State convention of Massachusetts on The Anti-slavery doctrine of the Whig party, and soon afterwards published a letter of rebuke to Robert C. Winthrop, Representative in Congress from Boston, for voting in favor of war with Mexico. He finally left the Whig party and joined the Free-soilers (see free soil party), supporting Van Buren for President in 1840.

In April, 1851, Mr. Sumner was elected by a coalition of Democrats and Freesoilers in the Massachusetts legislature to the United States Senate, to fill the place vacated by Daniel Webster. He took his seat Dec. 1, 1851, and kept it by successive re-elections until his death. He was recognized as the leader in all antislavery movements in the Senate, and his political action in the matter was guided by the formula “Freedom is national, slavery is sectional.” He took a very active part in the debates on the Kansas questions. His speech on The crime against Kansas took two days in its delivery, May 19 and 20, 1856 (see page 460). Some passages in it greatly incensed the members of Congress from South Carolina, and one of them, Preston S. Brooks (q. v.), assaulted Senator Sumner while he was writing at his desk in the Senate chamber on May 26. Brooks approached Sumner with a gutta-percha cane and dealt him such a blow on the head that he fell insensible upon the floor. From this blow he never fully recovered. Brooks was

Charles Sumner.

rewarded for this act by his constituents with the present of a gold-headed cane and a re-election to Congress.

In the Senate in January, 1862, Senator Sumner argued that the seizure of Mason and Slidell was unjustifiable, according to the principles of international law. His voice was heard frequently during the war in defence of the national policy, and in 1865 he pronounced a eulogy on President Lincoln. In April, 1869, his speech on American claims on England caused great excitement and indignation in Great Britain, where it was supposed to threaten [460] war and an attempt to excite popular feeling against that country. In the same year his opposition to the scheme for the annexation of Santo Domingo to the United States brought him into collision with President Grant, and led to Sumner's removal from the chairmanship of the committee on foreign relations in March, 1870. He afterwards separated from the Republican party, and supported (1872) for the Presidency the nominee of the Liberal Republicans and Democratic party—Horace Greeley. He opposed General Grant's renomination, and at a convention of Democrats and Liberal Republicans held at Worcester in September, 1872, he was nominated for governor of Massachusetts. He was then in England in search of health, and declined. He returned home and to the Senate late in 1872, and in the course of the session he introduced an unpopular bill, which drew from the Massachusetts legislature in 1873 a vote of censure. It was to remove from the regimental colors of the army and from the army register the names of battles won by Union troops in the Civil War. The vote of censure was rescinded in 1874, a short time before his death, in Washington, D. C., March 11, 1874. See Kansas, Nebraska, Civil rights bill.

Sumner the statesman.

United States Senator George F. Hoar, of Massachusetts, has given an analytical review of the public career of Mr. Sumner, dealing in large measure with the qualities that are essential in true statesmanship. The following is the substance of Senator Hoar's points and conclusions:

The history of Mr. Sumner's preparation for statesmanship covers the period from his birth until, on July 4, 1845, at the age of thirty-four, he delivered the oration on The true grandeur of Nations, which is the first of his productions to which he has given a place among his collected works. This oration gave its author a conspicuous position among the public men of the country. He held no office until his election to the Senate, six years later. It is probable that when Sumner accepted the invitation of the city authorities of Boston to deliver the Fourthof-July oration, he had no other expectation for his life than to gain a living by a not very distinguished or successful practice at the bar of Suffolk, and that the height of his ambition was to be the companion or successor of Story, or Greenleaf, as a teacher of law at Cambridge. There are traces in the letters of his friends of great though vague expectations of his future greatness. Mr. Webster, in giving him a prize for an essay just after he left college, remarked kindly that “the public held a pledge of him.” But each of these friendly prophets would probably have deemed Sumner's opinions and methods, at that day of the greatest social and political intolerance of unpopular opinion, an insuperable obstacle to his success. But this oration reveals its author full grown. It was an attack on the most gigantic evil of all history, in the presence of a hostile audience, without regard to the dissenting opinions of friends, the orator planting himself on the simplest maxims of right as his premises, and justifying his argument by citing the opinions of great authorities in literature, ethics, and jurisprudence. We do not think of any change of method, opinion, style, or manner, which came to Sumner after that day, except, perhaps, a certain heaviness of delivery and loss of magnetism, partly the result of the habit of leading his important speeches from printed slips in his later years, and partly the physical result of the assault made upon him in the Senate chamber. The courage, the glowing eloquence, the lofty confidence, the faith in the ideals to which he ever remained true, each of these is here disclosed.

Before he left college Sumner had become a good scholar in Latin and Greek. He failed utterly in mathematics. “He delighted in Scott's novels, but most of all in Shakespeare, from whom he was perpetually quoting in conversation and letters.” He kept a commonplace-book. His industry increased after leaving college. He rose for study at a quarter-past five in the morning, keeping up often until midnight. He became familiar with all heroic literature. He was an eager student of the old English poets and prosewriters. The results of the studies of this time abound in his speeches. Marston's lines— [461]

Oh! a fair cause stands firme and will abide;
Legions of angels fight upon her side—

which he quoted in Faneuil Hall, in his speech of Aug. 22, 1848, are extracted in the commonplace-book which he had in college.

He took the second Bowdoin prize in his senior year for a dissertation on The present character of the inhabitants of New England, as resulting from the Civil, literary, and religious institutions of the first settlers. He invested his prizemoney in books, among which were Byron's Poems, the Pilgrim's progress, Burton's Anatomy of melancholy, Hazlitt's Select British poets, and Harvey's Shakespeare. The last two were kept through life on his desk or table, ready for use. The Shakespeare was found open on the day of his death, as he had left it, with his mark between the leaves at the third part of Henry VI., pp. 446, 447, and his pencil had noted the passage:

Would I were dead! if God's good — will were so;
For what is in this world, but grief and woe?

He spent the first year after leaving college in study, reading, among other things, Tacitus, Juvenal, Persius, Shakespeare, and Milton, Burton's Anatomy, Wakefield's Correspondence with Fox, Moore's Life of Byron, Butler's Reminiscences, Hume's Essays, Hallam, Robertson, and Roscoe, and making a new attempt at the mathematics.

He then, rather reluctantly, chose the law as his pursuit in life. No trace can be found in his biography of any inclination towards the practice of the legal profession, or of much respect or capacity for the logic of the common law. We do not remember that he anywhere speaks with enthusiasm of great advocates, unless, like Erskine, they have rendered some service to liberty, or maintained and established some great principle against hostile governments or courts. In his eulogies on Pickering and Story, delivered in 1846, his distaste towards the function of the lawyer, or even of the ordinary judge, is strongly manifest. He says that to Pickering “litigation was a sorry feast, and a well-filled docket of cases not unlike the curious and now untasted dish of ‘nettles’ in the first course of a Roman banquet.” In the eulogy on Story he speaks of “the niceties of real law, with its dependencies of descents, remainders, and executory devises, also the ancient hair-splitting technicalities of special pleading—both creatures of an illiterate age, gloomy with black-letter and verbal subtilties.” He returns again and again to the contrast between the lawyer or the judge, “both practising law,” and the jurist. “All ages have abounded in lawyers and judges. There is no church-yard that does not contain their forgotten dust. But the jurist is rare.... The jurist is higher than the lawyer, as Watt, who invented the steam-engine, is higher than the journeyman who feeds its fires and pours oil on its irritated machinery—as Washington is more exalted than the Swiss, who, indifferent to cause, barters for money the vigor of his arm and the sharpness of his spear.”

Mr. Sumner reaffirms this contrast with even greater zeal and force in his opinion in the great case of the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson. If there were to be stricken out from the history of constitutional liberty what has been won for her by those lawyers whose training and life have been that of the advocate, not of the jurist, there would be little of it left to recount.

But Sumner became forthwith a zealous student of that branch, or rather of that main trunk, of the science of jurisprudence which is somewhat inexactly called by many writers the “law of nature.”

To this pursuit, if Sumner had needed any stimulant, he would have found it in the friendship and instruction of Judge Story. If Sumner had gone to Cambridge in 1845 to succeed his beloved teacher and friend, he would have been a great writer in this department of legal science. He would have completed the task which Mackintosh left unfinished.

A most important part of Sumner's education was his visit to Europe. He went as a student, not as a lounger. He did not allow the attractions of architecture, galleries, or society to prevent his accomplishment of his chief objects, the study of language and of jurisprudence. He acquired the three [462] languages, French, German, and Italian, well enough to read and converse in them easily, and to understand the lectures which he attended. His knowledge of language, jurisprudence, foreign politics, foreign statesmen, social life, gained in this visit, all were of infinite value to his later career.

Sumner arrived at home May 3, 1840. The time of mere preparation had ended— the time of devotion to life's duties begun. The next five years were spent in diligent study, in writing for the magazines, in conducting an extensive correspondence, and in the practice of his profession. He threw himself with characteristic earnestness into the defence of the conduct of Mackenzie in the case of the Somers mutiny. He had some practice at the bar, and conducted successfully a few important causes. He took little interest in politics, and seems to have been much disgusted with the great popular excitements of the Presidential campaign of 1840.

If any man remain incredulous as to the character of Sumner's after-life, let him see what, beyond all question or peradventure, he was at thirty-four. Growing up in a great city, school, and college life, ten years at the bar, three years spent in the most brilliant society in Europe, will disclose foibles, and vices, and meannesses, and selfish ambitions, if they exist. If they do not show themselves at thirty-four, they are not likely to spring up afterwards.

We have here a man of a nature vehement and self-confident, tempered slightly with respect for elders; of strong family affections; taking great delight in friendship; so attracting and so being attracted by the best and greatest men that, in that large circle of intimacies which his correspondence discloses, embracing a list of famous names unapproached by any other biography of modern times, there cannot be found the name of a bad or mean and scarcely that of an obscure man; of an innocence and purity absolutely without a stain; of a singular sincerity and directness of speech and conduct; of marvellous industry; of almost miraculous memory; without humor; without a personal enemy; never having had a quarrel; loving the contemplation of the highest models of excellence; and of the loftiest and simplest maxims of virtue; delighting especially in the study of that science which applies the rules of the moral law to the conduct of men; fearless of opposition; of commanding presence; with the faculty of rapid and thorough investigation; with vast stores of learning always at his command; of a magnetic eloquence which inspired and captivated large masses of men as he moulded the lessons of history, the ornaments of literature, the commandments of law, human and divine, into his burning and impassioned argument; yet without political ambition; disliking the contentions of his profession, and dreaming fondly of the life of a student and teacher in the shades of a university as the highest bliss which an indulgent Heaven could bestow.

Sumner has been sometimes likened to Edmund Burke. There is a slight resemblance between some of the prints of Burke and some likenesses of Sumner. Sumner had been a student of Burke, and had caught something of the style of his statelier passages. They were both men of great intellectual independence, and paid little deference to the opinions of their associates, so far as related to their action upon political questions. But here the resemblance ends. Sumner had none of Burke's subtlety of intellect. He had neither the taste nor the capacity for philosophical analysis. Burke loved to dwell upon a subject, to consider it in all its relations, discover the most occult resemblances in things seemingly most unlike, and to develop differences in things apparently the most similar. Sumner planted himself on the most general statements of right, on the simplest maxims of morals and duty—the opening sentences of the Declaration of Independence, the Sermon on the Mount, the Golden Rule, the Beatitudes, the two sublime commandments on which hang all the law and the prophets.

Sumner liked to find a literary precedent for his method of dealing with a subject. Many of his best passages are, if not imitations of, at least suggested by, some famous passage in the works of some other orator or writer. The opening of his oration on The true grandeur of Nations [463] is a paraphrase of part of the funeral discourse in the Menexenus of Plato. The White slavery in the Barbary States is suggested by Dr. Franklin's parody on the speech of Mr. Jackson, of Georgia, written March 23, 1790, only twenty-four days before the author's death. The unsavory comparison of Senator Douglas to a “noisome, squat, and nameless animal,” wrung from Sumner by a savageness of personal attack almost unparalleled, even in those days when slavery turned the Senate chamber into a bear-garden, is borrowed from a shaft which Burke launched at Lord North. The eulogy on Fessenden is, perhaps, the best specimen of his original genius, as it is one which his friends delight to contemplate as evidence of the nobility of his nature. Even here, he has to recall the reconciliation between Adam and Eve, in the Paradise lost.

Sumner's methods were very simple. They have been pointed out a thousand times. He applied to every political question the plainest maxim of justice. He was sure that the people would see it, and, when they did see it, it would speedily prevail. He had the power to make them listen to him, and to make them see it as he did. He attacked the adversary in his stronghold. He would yield nothing by way of compromise. In other words, conscientiousness, faith in the people, power to move their moral nature, courage which attacked the strongest enemy, and an absolute refusal to compromise one jot or tittle of what he deemed right, though it were to save the universe from threatened destruction —these were his open secrets.

Nothing is more wonderful or absolute than his faith in the early overthrow of slavery. He declares in his first speech, just after the annexation of Texas, and as the war with Mexico is just breaking out, that “the fetters are soon to fall from the limbs of the slave.” These confident expressions abound in his speeches. To his triumphant anticipation every victory, every crime, every outrage of slavery was but an added ground of hope, as helping to open the eyes of the American people to the power of whose awakened conscience he implicitly trusted.

When Mr. Sumner had any important question to deal with, he desired to collect everything that had been said or written upon it. He did nothing, if he could help it, without a literary authority. His industry never abated or relaxed until he was struck by death. During the period while he held the important station of chairman of the committee on foreign relations, he investigated each of the important subjects which came before him as if it were a science of itself. An attack on him called from the secret records of the Senate the dates of the reference and reporting of nine treaties, which were the last that were referred to this committee while he was its chairman. When we remember that these are the instances which his able and zealous antagonist has selected to show his neglect—when we remember the importance of the subjects—when we remember his relation to all the other great questions before the country, and the numerous calls upon his time that his correspondence and the visits of his countrymen, for purposes of business or friendship, must have occasioned, we are amazed at the proof of diligence which this evidence gives. We believe no other committee could show such a record.

Mr. Sumner was pained by the vote of the legislature of Massachusetts disapproving his resolution providing that the names of the battles won over our fellowcitizens in the war of the rebellion should be removed from the regimental colors of the regular army and from the army register. He was deeply touched and gratified by the rescinding of this vote, the information of which reached him just before his death. Mr. Schurz represents him as mourning and brooding over this sorrow: “Oh, those were evil days, that winter; days sad and dark, when he sat there in his lonesome chamber, unable to leave it, the world moving round him, and in it so much that was hostile, and he prostrated with the tormenting disease, which had returned with fresh violence, unable to defend himself, and with this bitter arrow in his heart!” We are confirmed by a careful and extensive inquiry among those who were most intimate with Mr. Sumner, and who saw him most frequently during the last two years of his life, in our own confident belief that this [464] picture, if correct at all, is applicable to very few and brief moments. Mr. Sumner's last years, down to the evening when he was struck with his final sickness while dining with some friends, were a season of cheerfulness, of courage, of great literary and social delights, and of hard work.

Was Charles Sumner a great statesman? If to be a great statesman is to deal with questions of the greatest moment to the state; to know what are its governing forces; to retain his hold on those forces; to direct them; to cause sound principles of action to take effect in the government of the state in great emergencies; to adapt his methods to the condition of things by which he is surrounded; in brief, to accomplish great and wise public ends by great and wise means—if this be statesmanship, then was Charles Sumner a great statesman, if one ever trod the face of the earth.

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